Coal exports could block passenger-rail expansion

The corporations involved with a proposed Bellingham-area coal export facility could get a nearly free ride on rail upgrades. Or the coal traffic might just kill hopes for a greener form of travel.
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A train runs along Bellingham Bay

The corporations involved with a proposed Bellingham-area coal export facility could get a nearly free ride on rail upgrades. Or the coal traffic might just kill hopes for a greener form of travel.

Did anyone see this train coming? I mean, we looked both ways and then, bang, there it was, knocking down everything in its way. What happened?

For more than a decade, state rail planners worked on plans for high-speed Amtrak from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. and a freight rail plan based on statements from the BNSF railroad that it saw no big changes ahead. “From a freight perspective, BNSF believes sufficient capacity exists for the foreseeable future,” state freight rail planners said as late as 2009.

Meanwhile, planners in railside communities such as Bellingham and Marysville aggressively forged ahead with “green” ideas that sometimes co-existed with the tracks.

What happened about three years ago was that the world woke up to China and India growing like crazy —and it was all based on burning coal. Suddenly America’s coal giants had a market to replace the U.S. coal plants that were being shut down to combat global warming. The coal giants could sell their coal to Asia.

But they had no West Coast ports to ship their coal. They did have an eager railroad, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) with its new deep-pocket owner, Warren Buffett.

That was the marriage made in ... well, choose your word based on your worldview ... and that was the train we didn’t see coming.

State rail reports — a freight rail plan in 2009, Amtrak long-range plans in 2006, and 2008 and even a Discovery Institute study in 2011 — simply didn’t reflect the new train in town. All were based on a 1992 plan for high-speed passenger rail.

So we are aggressively seeking federal funds — the only game in town right now — for a high-speed rail that is problematic unless someone comes up with big money to build a separate track and divorce the system from BNSF. Certainly that is true north of Seattle, where major bottlenecks persist on the present system.

The serious nature of adjusting to the new world of massive coal unit trains to feed the Chinese dragon was illustrated Monday (May 7) in a presentation to Bellingham City Council by Jack Delay, president of CommunityWise Bellingham (CWB), which bills itself as working to inform the community about impacts of a planned coal-export terminal at Cherry Point, north of Bellingham. SSA Marine of Seattle wants to export 48 million tons of Powder River coal a year and already has a contract with Peabody Coal for half that tonnage.

Delay told council members that double-tracking the present BNSF rail lines through the heart of the city’s waterfront appears to be the priority of both the state’s rail planners and BNSF. Details are contained deep within appendixes of state rail plans, he said, and include massive disruptions to one of the city’s most popular parks as well as homes, businesses and future waterfront development. The cost of the project, labeled the “South Bellingham siding,” was estimated at $102.6 million back in 2006, when it appeared in state long-range plans for Amtrak. Another $2.3 million is planned to relocate a portion of the rail line that bisects a proposed new waterfront development.

CWB’s consultant, Transit Safety Management (TSM) is a national firm hired to examine ways added coal traffic might impact Bellingham. Their report concluded: “BNSF has made no public announcement of how it intends to handle the additional traffic, nor what infrastructure must be constructed to support it. It appears likely from examination of the infrastructure proposed in the WSDOT Long Range Plan for Amtrak Cascades, that the infrastructure solution developed for increased coal train traffic will probably be similar.”

In other words, as Amtrak high-speed rail gains taxpayer funds and moves ahead to build its dream, those who benefit from coal exports will also ride the tracks. A siding built in Bellingham, grade separation in Marysville or Edmonds, or a river crossing in Burlington can be expected to be paid for by public money but provide much of the benefit to BNSF, Peabody Coal, SSA Marine, and Goldman Sachs (49 percent owner of SSA).

Much the same may be said about rail improvements in other Washington communities from Seattle to Vancouver, and along the Columbia Gorge and into Spokane; that’s the route of coal trains from Wyoming. In addition to Cherry Point, coal-export terminals are under consideration at Longview and Grays Harbor and at two Oregon ports.

Studies declare that the BNSF mainline is the only practical way to ship the coal, and it is clearly BNSF’s preference. The railroad has a little-used inland line running from Burlington parallel with Highway 9 to Sumas; conceivable it could be upgraded and expanded, but it could not qualify for high-speed transit taxpayer dollars so it would need to be financed by the railroad itself.

The pattern of rail capital investments has been to depend on public funding when an opportunity is presented. For decades, federal investment in freight-rail infrastructure has been minimal; funds have been directed to passenger rail. On smaller branch lines or in rural areas without mass transit the railroads are generally on their own.

In its 2006 Amtrak report, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) listed $607.7 million spent to that time on upgrading the rail system, with BNSF contributing $9.4 million, or 2 percent. Many of the improvements, such as stations, would not benefit BNSF, but others dealing with tracks and safety clearly would. The pattern is similar to that in other areas. As TSM commented in its report, “BNSF can be expected to support any new business, including the proposed coal trains, with the minimum amount of effective investment.”

Washington rail planners did not design this system for coal trains; the plans originated well before coal exporting from Puget Sound or Columbia River ports was envisioned. WSDOT assumed for two decades that freight-rail traffic would be intermodal stack cargo along with grain and other products of the region. Coal caught them by surprise as it did others; fortunately for BNSF, it has a railroad that connects to deep-water ports. And fortunately for SSA Marine, it owns a thousand acres at Cherry Point with an 80-foot deep channel from which it once planned to ship grain and potash.

During the past two decades, since the Legislature approved the high-speed rail plan in 1993, the state has plugged away, using federal and state grants to expand service, particularly between Seattle and Portland, where trackage is more developed and there is greater demand. Seattle to Vancouver limped along, finally getting two round trips a day, but is still far from its goal of four trains. Serious rail bottlenecks, particularly between Burlington and Blaine, and between the U.S. border and Vancouver, require huge investments and still wind up with the trains sharing tracks with freight.

State plans to overcome the bottlenecks were not secret — they are outlined in 2006 and 2009 state reports — but the details have not been widely discussed, in part because the likelihood of their ever being funded is not high. Local planners worked on the basis of future freight traffic growing but not exploding with coal exports.

Railroad officials have said 15 trains a day now use its tracks between Everett and Bellingham; that’s practical capacity for the present system, according to state reports and TSM. If Cherry Point is built to capacity it adds another 18 trains to the line — more than double present capacity. Without dramatic improvement, the coal can’t be shipped.

Thus the sudden pressure on those old plans to add capacity for Amtrak, because they would also add capacity for the coal trains.

Building a second track through Bellingham’s waterfront and also expanding the Samish siding south of Chuckanut Drive would boost daily train capacity to 24 trains, TSM believes. But that is still far short of the 33 per day that would be needed when the Cherry Point terminal is built to capacity.

It would be possible, a 2008 WSDOT Amtrak report and the 2011 Cascadia Study concluded, to add a third Amtrak train between Seattle and Vancouver without the south Bellingham or Samish sidings. "This study shows that the addition of Bellingham-Everett regional rail service, plus the operation of one additional Cascade round trip Seattle-Vancouver, will not degrade current freight performance, but instead will improve it, assuming concurrent track capacity improvements," the studies stated.

But they also stressed that BNSF, if the coal terminal is approved, would be well beyond the capacity of the rail line to ship the coal, and could reject the third Amtrak run because its lines would be full. In that event, communities like Bellingham could wind up with more freight trains and rail tracks, but no added Amtrak.

There is simply no other way to move the coal other than add the second Bellingham line, and probably other sidings along the route north of Everett. If the state can justify these improvements as benefitting Amtrak, taxpayer funds could be used. Otherwise, BNSF would need to finance the expensive projects itself, perhaps with help from its export partners. And Amtrak could be out of luck.

State planners — and the TSM study agrees — see the added Bellingham sidings as the only solution if Gateway Pacific Terminal is built. In effect, if the city doesn't like the second siding, its only option is to work to defeat the coal-export terminal itself.

WSDOT wants both an enhanced Amtrak and an enhanced rail-freight corridor from Everett to British Columbia. Clearly a second track would allow both — at a price to communities like Bellingham — but even that may not be enough to serve a full-capacity GPT operation. Because the second track only brings capacity to about 24 trains and GPT at capacity will need 33 trains.

Perhaps in consideration of that point, BNSF told city officials last week that three tracks might be needed through at least part of the waterfront. The third track might be only a short siding, or it could be part of a plan to add track capacity along a much longer segment.

The South Bellingham siding, WSDOT documents reveal, would close several busy crossings and eliminate vehicular access to the popular Boulevard Park and Taylor Dock; the city continues to make heavy investments in the park and dock, a walkway over Bellingham Bay that will eventually connect the historic Fairhaven village to downtown. Environmental reviews may be needed; the line runs along the bay.

This type of major rail upgrading could also have a big impact on communities such as Mount Vernon, Burlington, Edmonds and Marysville, where tracks run through critical commercial or residential areas; preliminary traffic studies reveal potential heavy costs in the four towns from added train traffic. City councils at Edmonds and Marysville are on record opposing added coal traffic through their communities; in Bellingham a community group is collecting signatures to ban shipment of coal through the city with an initiative that could surely face legal challenges.

If upgrading occurs, local governments are often forced to share large parts of the mitigation costs. Separating grade crossings with overpasses or installing new equipment for so-called “quiet zones” costs millions of dollars, nearly all of which comes from taxpayer funds. When a BNSF spokesman cited in March a heavily impacted community in Illinois as a good example of mitigation, Western Washington University professor and environmental lawyer Jean Melious investigated. Melious found Galesburg, Ill., with seven trains an hour and years of trying to soften the impact. BNSF paid only 2 percent of some $38 million in mitigation costs over a period of years; taxpayers at federal, state, and local levels paid the rest.

CommunityWise Bellingham’s Delay urged the city council Monday to press for inclusion of all the rail aspects in environmental review of the SSA Marine terminal plan. The important environmental “scoping” process that determines what will be studied will begin later this summer. There have been calls for a broad environmental review, including transportation, from a number of public agencies and from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The process will be long and laborious and cost both SSA Marine and the public a bundle; it’s likely to take a couple of years, during which the volatile coal market could shift and political decision-makers change. Our historic and fractured rail system — or the way we make decisions for it — may not emerge unscathed.

Determining a rational rail system for a state like Washington appears to be done in a “silo” system, with separate agencies (not to mention private railroads) drawing up grand plans, without knowing what’s in the next-door silo. Some in Bellingham claim to be blindsided by plans for massive rail changes, yet the plans have been published for years.

Northwest Washington is certainly a different place than when these plans were adopted two decades ago, and coal transports for Asian furnaces was never on the table. Does it make a difference and, if it does, do we even have a process to rethink this complex an issue?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.